Emily Wagster Pettus |AP News| April 16, 2021

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi will join a growing number of states and the federal government in banning the use of restraints on women giving birth in a jail or prison.

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves on Wednesday signed House Bill 196, the “Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act.” It will become law July 1.

It says leg restraints and handcuffs cannot be used on an inmate who is pregnant or in labor unless a jail or prison employee believes she may harm herself, the fetus or any other person, or unless she is believed to be a flight risk.

More than 20 states have enacted laws in the past two decades to ban the shackling of inmates during childbirth, and the federal government banned the practice as part of a sweeping criminal justice bill signed by then-President Donald Trump in late 2018.

Mississippi has almost 1,500 female inmates, according to the state Department of Corrections. The department on Friday did not immediately respond to questions from The Associated Press about how many inmates are pregnant or how many have given birth during the past year.

The new state law says pregnant inmates must be provided proper nutrition and dietary supplements, and they may not be assigned to upper-level bunk beds. It says no prison employee, other than a health care professional, may do a body cavity search on any pregnant inmate “unless the correctional facility employee has a reasonable belief that the female inmate is concealing contraband.”

Because pregnancy changes a woman’s ability to balance herself, the law also specifies that during an inmate’s pregnancy and for 30 days after birth, she cannot be put into leg restraints and cannot be shackled to other inmates. If she is handcuffed, her arms must be in front of her, not behind. Exceptions are allowed if employees have a reasonable belief that a pregnant inmate may harm herself or others or may try to escape.

After an inmate gives birth, the baby could remain with her for three days under the new law. House Judiciary B Committee Chairman Nick Bain, a Republican from Corinth, said the practice now is to immediately take the baby out of the jail or prison.

Alicia Netterville, deputy director and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, said in an interview Friday that female inmates “are thrust into a system that was designed for men.”

Speaking of the new law, Netterville said: “This was a huge win for Mississippi and definitely incarcerated women.”

She said prison employees will be required to undergo training about the physical and mental health of pregnant inmates.

Another group urging legislators to pass the bill was Empower Mississippi, which advocates for a limited role in government.

“This is good common-sense policy that establish dignity for incarcerated women because every woman deserves,” Steven Randle, Empower’s director of justice and work, said in a news release Friday. “This new law acknowledges that fact and recognizes that we have a responsibility to transfer that acknowledgment of basic human dignities to our incarcerated population, as well.”